DT-Developing Emotional Maturity

Tonight, I will be speaking about how dharma practice helps us to develop emotional maturity. Recently I listened to a talk about practicing with emotions by Diane Musho Hamilton, a Zen teacher based in Salt Lake City. Her insights are well worth discussing.

Many years ago, Diane studied at Naropa University with the Tibetan monk Trungpa Rinpoche. When she had a series of personal crises during the pandemic, she applied Trungpa’s practice called “Transmutation of Emotion.” In 2020, Diane bought her elderly mother home from an assisted living home to nurse her through a serious case of Covid. The virus caused so much lung damage that her mother did not survive. The day after accompanying her mother as she died, Diane received news that her 27-year-old nephew had fatally overdosed on drugs. Amidst grieving, she had to seek psychiatric treatment for her 34-year-old son with Down’s syndrome while he was undergoing a psychotic episode.

Despite decades of meditation practice in both the Tibetan and Zen Buddhist traditions, Diane felt emotionally inundated by this series of losses and traumatic events in her life. At times she was numb and disconnected from feelings of grief. While mourning her family members and worrying about her son, she remembered Trungpa Rinpoche’s spiritual exercise for transmuting emotions.

Diane sat still and dropped all cognitive thoughts and story lines about her distressed feelings. Then she connected with her body and felt unpleasant sensations directly, without adding any interpretation. Consciously, she attuned to the steady rhythm of her breath. During this process, what had felt frightening and overwhelming transmuted into simply being fully present with the reality of that moment.

Once her mind was clear and calm, Diane could ask herself, “What is right about these feelings?” She remembered that emotions are basically intelligent, energetic, and full of life force. They connect us to one another. In her situation, it was right to grieve the death of her mother and her nephew, and it was right to feel concerned about her beloved son’s well-being. It was not healthy, however, to try to block or suppress natural emotions of sadness and fear. And she could let go of the nonproductive, conditioned habit of feeling sorry for herself.

She realized the truth of Trungpa’s teaching: emotion is self-liberating when it’s fully acknowledged. Sadness transforms into compassion, anger becomes clarity, fear becomes vitality and positive life force, confusion becomes spaciousness, and longing transmutes into inspiration to practice.

In her book Compassionate Conversations, Diane writes about how emotion is a feedback loop between cognition and body sensation. When we interrupt that feedback loop, we find freedom. Regular practice helps us to stop indulging conditioned emotions. Unless we are mindful, body sensations trigger feeling tones that are pleasant or unpleasant, which spark emotions, which lead to moods and eventually to traits that persist. We’ve all met individuals who seem stuck in anger and bitterness or whose usual attitude is depressed and hopeless.

How do we relate with people who embody those difficult traits? We may feel aversion or respond with sympathy, empathy, or compassion. Sympathy means that we feel sorry or pity for others’ suffering but don’t identify with their plight. Although we understand that “Those poor victims are hurting,” we keep an emotional distance from them. In contrast, with empathy, we may identify so much with someone else’s pain that we suffer ourselves: “I feel devastated about your hardship.”

Compassion allows us to experience someone else’s pain without feeling submerged in it. During a compassionate response, there is no distress signal in the brain, and we are free to be caring and fully present with one who is suffering. When we practice brahma viharas or divine abodes like lovingkindness or compassion, we are developing states of mind that lead to positive traits. Typically, pleasant physical sensations accompany those states and traits.

Meditation teacher Joko Beck invited her students to receive information from their bodies as a path to understanding their emotions. From her viewpoint, emotional maturity entails learning to feel fully whatever is arising in the field of awareness, to experience the intelligence of emotions that have been held in the body, and to let those feelings go when the time is right.

At first when we sit in meditation, we learn to disidentify with feelings, to stop taking emotions personally. We realize that part of the experience of being human is to sense periodic energic waves of anger, sadness, and happiness. Later in our practice, as our boundaries expand, we allow feelings to permeate us fully, to expand, and to connect us to all beings everywhere. We see that the pain of the world is our pain, and our natural response is compassion because we know that we are all one.

There are cultural differences in how emotions are expressed. For example, in general, Americans tend to be explicit and expressive, communicating directly and emotionally. Because Germans have a tendency to be explicit and inexpressive,

they are comfortable with direct, unemotional communication. Japanese people tend to be inexplicit and inexpressive, at ease with ambiguity and indirect communication while rarely showing emotions openly.

Yet regardless of differing cultural backgrounds, emotional maturity is defined as being fully capable of feeling complex emotions without being overwhelmed, making distinctions among feelings, and being able to let them go, so that difficult emotions don’t become entrenched. Ironically, we must relearn how a baby experiences emotions spontaneously—they come, they flower, and they’re gone.

It takes emotional maturity to discuss conflictual issues without being flooded by feelings. Those of you who watched President Biden’s State of the Union address noticed reactive emotional outbursts by some congressional representatives who shouted insults at the speaker for voicing opposing viewpoints. Whether or not you support Joe Biden, his ability to respond with equanimity, dignity, and humor demonstrated a level of emotional maturity that contrasted with the juvenile, disrespectful behavior of the hecklers.

As Diane says, there is a developmental progression in the experience of working with our feelings. Mindful practice helps us to tap the innate intelligence in the mind-body relationship with emotions so that the brain’s cognitive and limbic systems work together harmoniously. Awareness of breathing is key to creating coherence in the body and mind.

After enough practice, we recognize when we’re starting to feel emotionally overloaded, and we learn to give ourselves cognitive cues: “I may be feeling intense anger, but I am not my emotions. I can use the breath to recalibrate my nervous system.” It’s liberating to witness strong feelings inside without allowing them to fuel unskillful words and actions.

Diane warns us not to indulge habitual emotions. If you have a habit of thinking that people don’t appreciate you, you might try replacing that line of thought with noticing whenever someone treats you with kindness. As you become more receptive to kind gestures, you may discover that gratitude takes the place of grievances. To interrupt my habit of worrying about what might happen in the future, it helps to reassure myself, “I worry because I want a positive future. I’d rather focus on being positive in the present moment.” With that awareness, I can let go of worries.

Joko Beck says that in meditation practice we move from a life of drama—a kind of soap opera—to a life of no drama. Each of us is attached to starring in our own personal drama. We can become so upset about our melodrama that we cannot attend to anybody else’s troubles. Through practice, we gradually shift away from that self-preoccupation and let go of being at the mercy of our emotions.

In this process, we are less prone to judging others, even when they seem difficult. Instead of criticizing peoples’ problems and trying to fix them, we begin to enjoy their eccentricities. Gradually, our reactivity transforms into finding joy in a life that is free of judgment.

Meditation teacher Stephen Levine taught that true healing happens when we go into our own pain so deeply that we see it is not just our pain but everyone’s pain. For him, the point of our lives is to fulfill what we were born for, to heal from the pain of our personal, separate, constricted lives into openness and a joyful connection with all life.

*Tonglen practice is one way to develop emotional maturity:

Sit comfortably with eyes closed and be aware of your natural rhythm of breathing. Recall a painful incident that still affects you…. On the in-breath, breathe in your own pain. On the out-breath, breathe out compassion for yourself.

After several rounds of breathing in this way, bring to mind someone you know who is suffering…. As you inhale, breathe in their pain; as you exhale, breathe out compassion for this person.

Take time for several rounds of breathing in this manner…. Then visualize those who are suffering after the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria…. With an inhalation, breathe in the pain of survivors who have lost homes and loved ones. With an exhalation, breathe out compassion for all who are cold, hungry, grieving, and homeless.

Let us close the practice by letting go of all imagery, simply breathing in and out of our compassionate hearts…. When you feel ready, you can open your eyes and sense the support of the sangha around you.